Home & Design

The main building centers around an airy living and dining area. Furniture-grade plywood flanks the cinderblock chimney; painted-concrete floors reinforce the humble material palette. Photo: Roger Foley

A view from 2010 reveals the original naturalistic meadows planted by the late landscape architect James van Sweden. Photo: Roger Foley

Two structures flanking the main house were inspired by local agrarian outbuildings. All three volumes boast new corrugated-metal roofs and energy-efficient Marvin windows and doors that can withstand hurricane-force winds. Photo: Anice Hoachlander

Stairs in the main hub lead to a loft housing Sorg’s office and spare sleeping quarters; the revamped kitchen is situated behind the plywood wall that displays portraits by Richard Avedon. Photo: Roger Foley

B&B Italia sofas and white Le Corbusier armchairs outfit the main living space. Photo: Anice Hoachlander

In the guest quarters, Sorg designed the low-slung bed and cabinet, both made of furniture-grade marine plywood. Photo: Anice Hoachlander

The buildings were oriented to take advantage of passive-solar principles. Sixteen-inch-thick Trombe masonry walls clad their eastern exposures to minimize heat gain and loss. Photo: Anice Hoachlander

Sorg selected black aluminum siding so the structures would blend into the scenery after dark. Photo: Anice Hoachlander

Ripple Effect

Architect Suman Sorg finds refuge—and new direction—in her recently upgraded home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Following a 45-year stint in Washington, Suman Sorg set her sights on New York. After most of the assets of her eponymous, 45-person architecture firm were sold, she was about to launch a nonprofit and the big city seemed like fertile ground for growth. So she moved into an apartment on Central Park—and then the pandemic hit.

“I went downstairs, rented a car and came here automatically,” recalls Sorg from the light-filled living room of her summer home in Sherwood, Maryland, overlooking the shimmery Chesapeake Bay. “I thought I’d be here for two or three weeks, but spent 18 months here full-time.”

Little did she know, her instinctive decision to take shelter on the Eastern Shore would have ripple effects on her future.

Sorg had conceived the home near St. Michaels in the early 2000s as a spot where she, her then-husband and their daughter could enjoy quick getaways from DC. It was one of several adjacent properties she’d designed with the late landscape architect James van Sweden, co-founder of Washington-based OvS. In a barter deal the friends worked out, she designed his house and he designed her seven-acre parcel for free. “At first I thought that wasn’t an even trade, but then my garden cost as much as the house,” she laughs.

In 2002, the duo also collaborated on an HGTV Dream Home next to Sorg’s; it was given away in a raffle, then sold immediately to a savvy New York buyer for $1.3 million. “Theses three are the only super-modern houses in the area, and became quite a tourist attraction—especially after the HGTV house,” notes Sorg.

In the design of her own residence, the architect took inspiration from a nearby 17th-century farm, its manor house surrounded by agrarian outbuildings. Her compound consists of three structures shaped like abstract barns. The main, central hub contains the kitchen, a living and dining area with 22-foot-high ceilings and a loft where Sorg works when on site. Two identical offshoots house bedroom suites—one for the homeowner and another for guests. Decks and elevated wooden walkways connect the buildings—surrounded by lawn, meadow and billowing seagrasses. A round swimming pool, enveloped in greenery and a flagstone terrace, awaits on the arrival side of the home.

The layout proved ideal during covid, as city friends dropped in while Sorg sequestered on the bay. “People would visit and never have to enter the main house,” she explains. “I’d cook in the kitchen and serve on one of the decks.”

Those 18 months marked the first time Sorg experienced the property and its estuary environment year-round. “A friend of mine says nothing happens here during the winter. But lots happens,” she says. “You just have to notice it.

“The leaves change, the insects disappear,” she continues. “Different kinds of birds come through. The bay freezes up—it’s actually lovely. Then butterflies arrive in March.”

During that time, Sorg befriended neighbors, joined a local book club and discovered more community in the area than she’d ever imagined. “I was super-busy before covid and can’t say I used the house enough to make it worthwhile,” she recalls. “There came a time when I said, ‘it’s too much work—let’s tear it down.’ But I’m so glad I didn’t.”

Ultimately, the architect abandoned her move to New York. “It wasn’t meant to be,” she explains. “I’ve begun to think Washington is city enough.” She decided to establish her nonprofit in DC (where she has a primary home near Rock Creek Park) and now spends more time on the Eastern Shore. And instead of a demolition, her 2,800-square-foot bay escape was recently treated to a complete overhaul.

“The major systems were not working well,” she says. “The bay is a pretty punishing environment, weather-wise.” Insulated metal cladding replaced rotting plywood siding on all three buildings. Sorg reappointed the kitchen and baths and installed a new roof, a new A/C system and energy-efficient Marvin windows and doors.

Respect for the environment has always guided Sorg’s approach, from the many multi-use, government and multi-family projects Sorg Architects has completed around the world to her intimate bay habitat. “This house has a small footprint, but it’s enough,” she asserts. “I didn’t want to heat and cool something unnecessarily. And because there are three buildings, I can live in one and shut the others down completely.”

The interiors remained the same. Finishes riff on materials prevalent in local farm buildings, juxtaposed with iconic modern furnishings. Refined panels of veneer-finished marine plywood flank the living room’s working cinderblock chimney. Concrete floors painted a pale gray reflect daylight and help keep the interiors cool. The architect designed platform beds and cabinetry for the sleeping suites, also using marine-grade plywood—a natural foil that doesn’t distract from ever-changing views out the windows.

Sorg spent the entire past summer in the bay house with her grown daughter, son-in-law and five-year-old grandson, who were on holiday from Scotland. Her lofty office, she reports, is an inspiring spot to work on her nonprofit. Called A Complete Unknown, the startup now employs 21 design pros around the globe dedicated to developing innovative solutions to empower underserved populations—people and animals alike.

Sorg’s humble Maryland abode has played a surprisingly oversized role as her next chapter unfolds. Reflecting on recent years, she says,“The renovation project in these strange times not only saved the house, but opened my heart to the real architecture of our lives, the nature around us and all the creatures that live in it, including us humans.”

Architecture: Suman Sorg, FAIA, A Complete Unknown, Washington, DC.

RESOURCES

GENERAL
Windows: marvin.com.

LIVING ROOM
Side Table & Chairs: dwr.com. Sofas: bebitalia.com. Table: knoll.com. Mirror: ralphlaurenhome.com. Floor Lamp & Rug: Project 62 through target.com. Photography Portraits: Richard Avedon. Chandelier: illuminc.com. Table & Chairs: dwr.com.

EXTERIOR
Sofa: allegroclassics.com. Dining Table & Chairs: knoll.com.

GUEST HOUSE BEDROOM
Bed & Credenza: designed by sorgarchitects.com.

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HOME&DESIGN, published bi-monthly by Homestyles Media Inc., is the premier magazine of architecture and fine interiors for the Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia region.

The company also publishes an annual H&D Sourcebook of ideas and resources for homeowners and professionals alike. H&D Chesapeake Views is published bi-annually and showcases fine home design and luxury living in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

The H&D Portfolio of 100 Top Designers spotlights the superior work of selected architects, interior designers and landscape architects in major regions of the US.

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